BWW Review: BETTE, BABS & BEYOND Raises The Bar at 54 Below
It is time for Scott Coulter's name to be above the title.
In the cabaret and concert world, there are many group shows and several ongoing series. They are all worthy of attention, and while each one has a different specific mission statement, they all have one thing in common: these shows present a team of talented entertainers who sing the music of a particular theme for the evening. Perhaps one series' theme is based on a decade, while another focuses on the catalog of a particular singer, on the other hand, there is a group show that focuses only on the heroines of an animated film studio, and one presents poetry and stand up comedy. One could sit for hours looking at the cabaret calendars for New York City and never run out of examples of group shows around the city.
When quality is guaranteed, though, the name of the curator is often attached. Jim Caruso's Cast Party. Susie Mosher's The Lineup. These institutions guarantee to the audience walking in the door that there will be a stellar cast of performers and an exceptional evening of entertainment. Patrons of the theaters and clubs know when they buy their tickets that they will not be surprised by a substandard show that might, possibly, leave them frustrated, or worse, bored. When you buy a ticket to a Susie Mosher Lineup or a Jim Caruso Cast Party, you will get quality entertainment.
It is time for Scott Coulter's name to be above the title.
Mr. Coulter has a production company called Spot-On Entertainment that produces group shows of different themes and types of music. These shows are available for bookings anywhere that an organization would care to transport the artists to so that they might enjoy their work. Last year Coulter's MUSIC OF THE KNIGHTS played Feinstein's/54 Below and this writer was awestruck by the level of talent shown, from the show structure to the musicians, from the singers to the host, Mr. Coulter himself. Naturally, upon learning that Coulter had created an evening called BETTE, BABS AND BEYOND that would focus on the works of great female pop singers, most notably Misses Midler and Streisand, there was no way I was going to miss it. Now that I have seen it I am considering creating an online petition to 54 Below, urging them to bring each and every one of Mr. Coulter's shows to their venue; and if unsuccessful with 54 Below, I would appeal to the other clubs of New York City. Indeed, to see the shows listed on the Spot-On Entertainment website, I would even do the unthinkable: travel to an outer borough. THAT is how good Coulter's shows are.
Everything about Bette, Babs and Beyond was absolute perfection. Mr. Coulter has curated a (dare I say) spot-on collection of singing actors to bring to life the music of the divas, his fantastic musical director John Fischer provides remarkable arrangements for the singers and then gives them magnificent accompaniment (assisted by boss Bassist Jerry DeVore) and Coulter's hosting abilities are as welcome as a winning lottery ticket. With no script from which he reads, Coulter introduces each of his singers by sharing facts about their work and the work they will perform, from memory, as though he is a friend sharing with fifty of his chums' stories about Cher and Adele, Reba and Bette that he keeps tucked away in his brain. With humor that travels the byway between deferential and irreverent, Coulter also shares himself with the audience, expressing opinions about his mode of dress, recalling personal moments from his past, and recounting exchanges between him and his spouse. Scott Coulter is a bona fide host, demonstrating for his grateful guests all the parts of himself by opening his arms and welcoming them into his world - a world brimming with talented friends and his own glorious singing. Coulter is kind enough to do back-up vocals for many of the artists, as well as perform duets and trios with them. He has a palpable respect for the women in his production and it shows, but it is clear that these women deserve and earn that respect.
Throughout the evening the audience grows increasingly enthralled by the vocal abilities of the ladies who might, more appropriately, be called divas. Each of the singers has an enviable gift, from Susan Agin's sass to Kelli Rabke's soul, but a common trait in each diva is an uncanny ability for volume. Not all singers have this kind of volume, and that's fine because each artist is different and should be encouraged to be different, for it is what makes the world of music a rainbow of possibilities. When, however, a group of ten women gets together to do a concert and, one after another, prove to onlookers that what is seemingly impossible to do vocally is, for them, like cutting an ice cream cake with a hot knife, it is difficult to remain nonplussed. Just clap and cheer and let them know you see them. Whether watching sweet-voiced Shelly Stannard Fuerte or volcanic Carole J. Bufford, the audience is able to connect to each performer through their commitment to both their storytelling and their audience. Andrea Prestinario presents quiet strength and a joyfulness rarely seen in "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and Alex Getlin has flare and showomanship, whether singing some Adele on her own or some Tina with Coulter and Douglas -- yes, Natalie Douglas, diva supreme, tasked with a stunning "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which gave her some opportunities to show off some fine-lookin' dance moves. Particularly powerful was a three woman lineup that featured one of the most unique sounding voices ever, Victoria Cook, singing some Bonnie Raitt, followed by the inimitable Lorinda Lisitza, who brought the house down with "White Rabbit" and ending with an uncontrollably irresistible Jessica Hendy, assigned to bring home "Natural Woman" - which she did, spectacularly.
With all of this strong woman energy, sisterhood, and talent in one show, one would never think that the performance of the evening would come from the boy singer -- but it did. It isn't because Scott Coulter is a man or because he sings better than the women that his was the most powerful performance -- it is because of the personal story he told about how the song affected him in his youth, and what it did for him when he realized "I Honestly Love You" was written by Peter Allen. It is fair to say that everyone in the theater at 54 Below who knows that song was, after Coulter's revelation, hearing it as though for the first time. It was a most touching and human moment, the kind one looks for in the observation of art.
Art is what Coulter and company are creating when they put on a Spot-On Entertainment show, and whether the concert is being produced at 54 Below or a different nightclub in New York City (or even, heaven forbid, in an outer borough) it can be a fair assumption that this cabaret journalist is going to take advantage of every opportunity to show up, sit back, and let the beautiful artistry roll over every part of my being.
Now.... about Scott Coulter's billing...
Find Spot On Entertainment online at their website
Visit the Feinstein's/54 Below website
Carole J. Bufford
Shelly Stannard Fuerte
Photos by Stephen Mosher